Today’s Opportunities in Farm Tourism

by Andy Woodward
Aug 2009
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Summary

Many farmers have sought to boost income from agriculture by diversifying into the tourism sector. This article analyses why the current environment is ripe with opportunities to launch, or develop existing, farm visitor ventures. It considers ways in which farms can meet the challenges of an increasingly sophisticated tourism market and illustrates contrasting initiatives through four case studies. The report identifies the latest innovations and trends, and highlights the importance of farm tourism to the sustainability of rural communities.

Farm tourism – officially tourist activity undertaken on a farm – varies hugely in scope, and extensive volumes have been written on the processes and actions by which people can become a part of it. Rural diversifications are developing at pace and in tune with consumer trends, fuelled largely by popular TV shows and the promotion of local produce, primarily from the national supermarkets.

Yet statistically there is little evidence to show that more people are actually visiting the countryside. Perhaps the very nature of farm-based and rural tourism means that its operators do not organise themselves in a way that has ‘clout’ within political and financial circles. This is probably due to the predominance of micro-businesses (businesses with fewer than five employees) and small SMEs (small-medium enterprises with fewer than 500 employees), many of whom tend not to participate in local and regional tourism initiatives, preferring to go it alone!

It is nevertheless clear that ‘the countryside’ is having its moment. A look at advertising and generic viewing in TV schedules illustrates what is igniting the consumer’s interest: Muller Yoghurt promoting Shropshire milk, Countrylife Butter promoting British cows. Programmes like Coast conjure spectacular images of countryside and shoreline, while the Great British Menu makes use of regional identity. River Cottage, Jamie at Home and Jimmy’s Farm enjoy enormous popularity, as does SpringWatch. The fact that Countryfile has ousted the Antiques Roadshow from prime Sunday teatime viewing is also telling.

A look at actual visitor numbers provides an interesting perspective. Between 2000 and 2003 trips to the countryside/villages declined by 2% to 22% of overall domestic trips taken, while the percentage of the overall spend reduced by 1% to 22%. This downward trend could be attributed to Foot and Mouth Disease, which primarily affected 2001.

However these figures have continued to deteriorate, with countryside/village trips taken in 2008 down to 18.2% of excursions. Two summers of disappointing weather can definitely be considered to have contributed to this decline: feedback from members of the farmer-owned consortium Farm Stay UK indicates that potential guests to their accommodation are quick to cancel and change plans during periods of poor weather.

Either way, since the turn of the new century countryside/village trips have reduced by 6%. One positive is that spending has shown a 1% increase, although after inflation this is still statistically a reduction. The offer to customers has improved in the last 10 years, enhancing value for money; reports also show that the countryside appeal remains primarily with the AB market segment, which is more likely to spend disposable income within this sector (Rural and Farm Tourism, VisitBritain, July 2005).

The following tables highlight a few key statistics from the UK Tourism Survey (UKTS) 2008, a national consumer survey sponsored by VisitBritain, VisitScotland, Visit Wales and Northern Ireland Tourist Board.

Type of trip 20072008Change
Leisure holidays (inc VFR)Trips (£million)76.8375.43-2%
 Spend (£million)£14,040£14,0980%
Paying guests in farmhouses*Trips (million)0.780.63-19%
 Spend (£million)£211£141-33%
Paying guests in B&Bs (as comparison)Trips (million) 5.340.63-6%
 Spend (£million)£1,121£1,056-6%

Type of destination: Countryside/village2007 2008 Change
Trips (million)23.4721.94-7%
Nights (million)87.1475.23-14%
Spend (£ million)£3,473£3,5011%
% of all trips19%18%-1%

Type of destination: Seaside2007 2008 Change
Trips (million)25.5723.00-10%
Spend (£ million)£4,887£4,5058%
% of all trips20.2%19.1%-1.1%

Type of destination: City/town2007 2008 Change
Trips (million)47.7146.82-2%
Spend (£ million)£8,579£8,8163%
% of all trips37.7%38.8%1.1%

Type of destination: Small town2007 2008 Change
Trips (million)29.8828.83-4%
Spend (£ million)£4,264£4,231-1%
% of all trips23.6%23.9%0.3%
*Large swings may be due to low sample sizes.

As can be seen from UKTS 2008 [1], trips by paying guests to farmhouses dropped alarmingly in 2008 by -19% and receipts by -33%. The average guesthouse statistics reflected a -6% drop in both categories. While the guesthouse figures are to be believed, the small size of the survey might overstate the impact of the drop in farmhouse stays.

When considering these figures, it must also be acknowledged that there has been a radical change of emphasis in the type of accommodation provided in the last 25 years. When Farm Stay UK (www.farmstay.co.uk) was formed in 1983, it supported 850 B&B properties. By 1993 figures showed 850 B&Bs and 250 self-caterers. In 2008 there were 750 B&Bs and 550 self-caterers.

The availability of funding through the Regional Development Agencies certainly encouraged the conversion of unused buildings and cottages into self-catering accommodation, while the willingness of the next generation to take on existing B&Bs has been at odds with the demands of 21st-century lifestyles – a point taken up again later in this article.

In contrast to the drop in overall visits and stays, farm attractions are doing well. VisitBritain’s 2007 Visitor Attractions Survey [2] showed an overall growth of 3% in visitor numbers to attractions, with farms reporting a credible 5% growth and country parks 8%. Although poor weather drove many indoors, the whole outdoor sector is doing well.

Notably, the overall increase was 4% for free attractions and only 1% for paid attractions, suggesting an early trend for belt-tightening. Farm attractions admission fees average £5.83 per head, making entry for a family of four under £24.

Barry Davies, Treasurer of the National Farm Attractions Network (NFAN, www.farmattractions.net), reports a significant increase of membership in NFAN in the past three to four years. Moreover, this rise has been mostly in farm attractions that offer an ‘experience’ beyond the farm animals, shop and tearoom.

Barry highlights several reasons for this development.

  • The customer/family experience has become increasingly important – visitors look for what there is to do, particularly for the main target audience of 3-11 year olds. Commercial reality has hit home and farm attractions have needed to become more sophisticated.
  • He believes the Manifesto for Learning Outside the Classroom (LOtC), a Department for Children, Schools and Families initiative, has also played a major part in the diversification process: in terms of seeing a significant growth in rural education centres, and the combination of education and fun. LOtC offers a Quality Badge for organisations and venues that provide learning experiences outside the classroom for children and young people aged 0-19. This recognises organisations that offer high-quality teaching and learning experiences with risk effectively managed.
  • Finally, the introduction of VisitBritain’s Visitor Attraction Quality Assurance Scheme, launched nationally in 2001, has dramatically improved the quality of attractions in the countryside.

Barry points out that there is a definite need and opportunity to provide attractions on farms for youths (11-16 years). In 2001, there were nearly 12 million children across the UK (National Census figures); farm attractions need to forward plan regarding provision of youth entertainment – some are already introducing skate parks, for example.

See also the August 2009 Insights article Getting Kids Back to Nature, which includes a section on Funding for farm visits.

Much has been published about the challenges of farming and why farmers are looking at diversification for additional revenue. Defra’s 2007/8 Farm Business Survey [3] illustrates the following.

  • 51% of all farms have diversified in one form or another, including 28% that have diversified into businesses other than letting buildings – an increase of 1% on 2006/7.
  • Income from diversification was £400 million, down -8% from 2007 to 2008.
  • 22% of diversified farms derive more income from their diversified business than from farming.
  • 7% of all farms ceased their diversified business, while 10% started.
  • 56% of all diversified farms have an output of under £10,000, and 11% of over £50,000.
  • Just 16% of all diversification income derives from tourism accommodation (5%) and sport and recreation (11%).
  • Tourism accommodation on farms is worth £90 million per year.
  • Larger farms are more likely to diversify than smaller ones.

Is the current environment right for farmers to diversify into tourism? Ben Moxon, Director of Arkenford, the travel and tourism consultancy, believes it is.

He points out that in 2008, 22% of domestic UK overnight trips were taken to countryside/villages, with a further 29% taken to small towns [1]. There is a real opportunity for UK tourism in ‘credit crunch’ 2009: consumers strongly value their holiday, yet are seeking to cut back on spend and view Europe as an expensive option. The UK has therefore become a viable alternative, and one that rural destinations can tap into.

Indeed industry data shows that the rural option is very appealing. Arkenford has recently launched Travel Navigator, an ongoing tracking study of UK consumer holiday confidence, booking behaviour and holiday intentions. This reports that of all UK bookings made for the next three months, almost a quarter have been made to rural or mountainous areas in the UK, and a further 15% to a small town. In addition almost 40% of consumers who are planning to book a holiday or short break in the next three months are planning to book a trip to a UK rural destination or small town.

It is also noted that specific activities and events can stimulate visitors. Ben explains:

'Some rural areas have worked really hard in recent years on developing and marketing their product offering. This can range from experiential holidays that allow visitors to learn new skills, to holidays that take in regional festivals. The effect is that they tend to attract more leading-edge segments of the market that are looking for new and different things to do. More importantly, these segments are also likely to spend more money. '

What Ben has identified is that farm tourism is in tune with current consumer trends. People are becoming more concerned about their own health and fitness, leading to increased participation in recreational walking and cycling.

Farms are well placed to capitalise on this trend by providing accommodation, whether B&Bs, bunkhouses or cottages, on specific recreational routes, eg National Trails like the Pennine Bridleway and the North Downs Way. They can also provide specific cycling and walking facilities.

There is growing interest in the countryside, environment and sustainable tourism, demonstrated by increases in membership of voluntary organisations like the National Trust and RSPB. Farms can offer direct access to the countryside and opportunities to see wildlife at close quarters, and many farmers can provide expert countryside interpretation.

Initiatives like Open Farm Sunday run by LEAF (Linking the Environment And Farming) offer farms the wherewithal to open their farms to the public, as well as providing a wealth of information for future visitors. Farm Stay is currently involved with a number of agencies, working particularly on visitor interpretation to improve the customer experience: educating the public in wildlife, the hedgerow, crops, astronomy, animal husbandry and farming.

Consumers have certainly indicated that they are seeking green credentials. The accommodation sector is responding to this through various schemes, of which the Green Tourism Business Scheme (GTBS) is the most well known. Participants joining GTBS have doubled since 2006 to encompass over 2,000 accommodation businesses. GTBS Managing Director Andrea Nicholas says:

'Farms in particular adopt the scheme very quickly; their exposure to existing agricultural schemes such as Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) and LEAF mean that they have already adopted the practicalities of looking after the environment, while recognising cost savings and efficiencies in their businesses. '

When it comes to the consumer Andrea goes on, ‘Society is ready for green standards.’

VisitBritain has trialled a Green Start induction scheme, intended as a framework for any tourism business wishing to make an initial commitment to sustainability, and will be announcing how it intends to move forward with this shortly.

As indicated earlier in this article, the food story is one that is high in the customer’s mind. The desire for traceability of food and low food miles coincides with the rise in popularity of farmers’ markets. This is reflected in farmhouse catering, and pro-active owners already make much of home-produced fare. Properties offering evening meals have a real opportunity in terms of menu planning, marketing and offering special events. The great farmhouse breakfast is a distinctive selling point. Many promotional organisations also take this one stage further and encourage their members to highlight local suppliers, markets and farm shops.

Although farms have great opportunities in tourism, there are very real threats that have, and will continue, to undermine growth in demand for their facilities.

Uppermost is the potential impact of future outbreaks of animal disease, like Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD), BSE, Blue Tongue, salmonella and E. coli. Should any outbreaks occur, it is imperative that Defra and the national tourism agencies lead the media with clear, honest and realistic assessments. They need to work hard to avoid the media frenzy that accompanied the 2001 FMD outbreak and brought the countryside to its knees. When these events occur, suitable funds must be made available to deliver the desired message in a timely manner.

Another major concern for the countryside, and one that cannot be overcome, is its physical location and the efforts required for visitors to get to their chosen destination. Fuel prices have risen markedly in the last few years and they are unlikely to reduce. The lack of public transport is already a major issue for locals in rural situations, let alone visitors, and until such time that there is a major investment in these services it will remain so.

Therefore accommodation and attraction providers must focus on the experiences and opportunities available once visitors are at their location, so that guests can be encouraged out of the car. Examples might include providing something as simple as bicycles for guests to use, or a greater range of activities closer to the guests’ base. Even so, fuel costs and transport availability will remain a hurdle to be overcome.

The weather has always been a challenge to UK holidays. However, it is one that visitors choosing farm accommodation handle better than those who opt for a beach holiday, where they demand perfect weather. Perhaps farm visitors expect to be more active and dress accordingly. Possible long-term weather changes through global warming could make UK summers hotter and demand for UK holidays higher. Equally, this could be countered by visitors choosing to spend their money in European beach resorts in the warmer shoulder seasons.

Finally, while exchange rates have fluctuated in favour of the UK compared to its competitors during this season, it will fundamentally remain the prerogative of the national tourism agencies to make the UK a destination of choice first, and the countryside experience second. Continued pressure should be applied to the government of the day to recognise and fund these activities.

The funding that is currently available for farm diversifications primarily relates to the latest round of European support for 2007-13. This is being distributed by the Regional Development Agencies (RDA) under the Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE).

However, each RDA has different priorities for their own region and therefore each one has a different approach mechanism and areas of support. These can be through local LEADER programmes or Regional Enterprise Grants (REG) and often involve a Business Link review. For instance, projects within Advantage West Midlands must be no more than £156,000, with a maximum of 40% being funded by REG. Similar but different programmes are under way in Wales and Scotland.

The best approach is for farm businesses to talk to their Rural Hub, and then to the RDA if no Rural Hub is available. Information can be found on their websites.

As stated at the outset of this report, there are many different types of farm tourism. The following case studies illustrate the experiences of four individual farms.

  • Key highlight: Brook Meadow is an outstanding example of ‘asset management’ and illustrates what can be achieved to maximise the potential of land.
  • Location: Sibbertoft, Market Harborough, Leicestershire.
  • Contact: Jasper and Mary Hart.
  • Website: www.brookmeadow.co.uk

Jasper and Mary Hart have farmed at Brook Meadow since 1967. Their principal harvest is wheat and ‘combine-able’ crops. Prompted by a need for additional income away from agriculture (the farm would struggle to be viable as a single entity), they began offering B&B in their home in 1987. They then developed other, more varied forms of diversification.

In 1991-2, they built a lake and, having become aware of a lack of self-catering in the area, they proceeded to develop lakeside chalets, camping (eight pitches) and hardstanding for caravans (12 pitches), along with showers and toilets. They also have a secure caravan storage facility for 250 units.

Activities on the farm include fishing and shooting, and the Harts have replanted coppices for the birds. Following a gravel extraction used to build a local road, the farm has leased land and buildings to a professional quad bike and off-road 4-wheel drive operation. They have had quad bikes on site since 1995, but the venture really started in earnest in 2002. A special off-road and quad bike trail has been created.

Asked about the key obstacles to diversification, Jasper replies: ‘Working in the unknown, but the planners were excellent.’

He also highlights sources of help: he received a £10,000 grant from the Farming Conservation fund (part of Defra) to finance 25% of the lake construction. Additionally, he received technical advice from the National Rivers Agency (now the Environment Agency) to manage the quality of the lake water.

Main routes to market for the business are publications like Farm Stay, Leicestershire’s and Northamptonshire’s tourism brochures, Pets Welcome and UK Campsites. Brook Meadow’s website is also important and there is now strong repeat/referred business.

The venture is certainly profitable and Jasper adds that the current credit crunch has affected them only in a positive way, as more people are remaining in the UK for holidays. ‘We have seen many new tents and new caravanners.’

The chalets run at 65% occupancy year-round and he feels that visitor numbers are pretty well hitting maximum capacity.

  • Key highlight: Old Farm upgraded traditional accommodation to meet modern demands and introduced a highly successful farm shop. It participates in the Green Tourism Business Scheme.
  • Location: Dorn, Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire.
  • Contact: Simon and Sarah Righton.
  • Website: www.oldfarmdorn.co.uk

Simon and Sarah Righton moved into the family home at Old Farm in 2002, swapping homes with Simon’s parents. They have 300 acres of mixed farming, which ‘does not allow for the economies of scale required to be profitable,’ Sarah says. They diversified to maximise income from available facilities and opportunities.

Old Farm has been a B&B since the Second World War and there has been a basic campsite since the 1980s. However, Sarah dates their diversification from 2002. A major upgrade was required to turn the B&B into a year-round business, including the addition of en suite and central heating. They later installed toilet and shower facilities for the campsite.

In 2004, Sarah introduced a farm shop that sells Old Farm meat and local products. It is a thriving concern, serving both local customers and campsite users.

Sarah cites time and information as the main hurdles to diversification:

'The planners were very encouraging and efficient, although restrictions were placed on the percentage of non-Old Farm product allowed to be sold in the farm shop. However, by focusing on home-reared meat and local produce the farm shop has a special place in the local economy. In addition, there was little useful information available for those wanting to set up a food business and we found that some advice was only available after the event.'

They received some local advice from Business Link and they employed a food consultant to help set up the farm shop. ‘Free training was also available to comply with Environmental Health,’ Sarah adds.

The local RDPE fund provided £5,500, which was half of the cost of the farm shop, and the Rightons also successfully applied for a second grant towards equipment.

The Rightons promote their B&B business via their website (Sarah uses Eviivo DMS and offers online booking) and they market the campsite through the Camping and Caravanning Club. They use local advertising, shows and farmers’ markets to promote the shop and their home–made/grown produce. ‘Feedback is very important, to allow us to evolve products to suit current trends,’ Sarah says.

The diversified business is profitable and, while all elements continue to perform together, the shop has made all the difference to the farm accounts. The B&B is run as a completely separate enterprise, providing Sarah with her own income – while the hourly rate ‘isn’t great’, it does fit in with school pick-up and holidays.

This year, the ‘staycation’ trend has delivered additional UK visitors. August is still quiet, but a trend to late booking has changed the lead time for accommodation take-up.

  • Key highlight: The Straw Bale Cabin is accommodation with exemplary ‘green’ credentials. A main aim of the undertaking is to increase environmental awareness.
  • Location: Village Farm, Brind, Howden, East Yorkshire.
  • Contact: Carol Atkinson.
  • Website: www.homegrownhome.co.uk

The Atkinsons have 200 acres of grassland. Beef with suckling cows is the main concern and the farm is viable as a single entity. The motivation to diversify in 2006 was to provide Carol with on-site employment. As a bonus, it has provided son Sam with a rare skill and potential career. The extra revenue stream also contributes to overall viability.

The Straw Bale Cabin is a remarkable feat of engineering, ingenuity and environmental best practice. The principal component is straw bales and the cabin was built on a mobile home frame (most recyclable metal), then rolled into its final position. Almost every product used is recycled or recyclable. Curvy, clay plastered walls, oak beams and deep, oak windowsills give the cabin the feel of an old country cottage. There is a bright kitchen and lounge area opening onto a south-facing porch, plus a spacious double bedroom and adjoining shower. It has its own composting loo.

Carol and Sam have become experts in straw bale construction, which has led to Carol gaining her MSc in Architecture during the building process. Following the grant of planning permission, a further two-bedroom cottage has been made from straw bales and opened to guests in August 2009.

Carol says one of the problems of diversification was, ‘Not getting planning permission for the cabin and therefore resorting to a “temporary” structure first to achieve our goals.’ Planning permission was later granted. She also says she found building control personnel from the local council ‘very helpful’.

She was able to tap into funding from several sources for the cabin. She received a grant of £5,000 from Growing Routes, an initiative from the Yorkshire Agricultural Society supported by Yorkshire Forward, plus £8,000 from the Langeled pipeline, Europe’s largest pipeline from Norway to East Yorkshire. There has been no external funding for the cottage.

Carol promotes business via her website and gets a good return through Responsible Travel.

However, she explains that her measure of success is not first and foremost financial. ‘Our objective is to increase environmental awareness and is not profit driven. If we can achieve this as our main goal, we will consider ourselves a success. I am working towards achieving my green dream, experimenting to create a wonderful showcase.’

The cabin is now in its second year of operation and will make a small profit – the credit crunch has helped to increase bookings. She hopes that business will increase further in the future, especially with the opening of the cottage.

  • Key highlight: Based on the wild north Northumberland coast, Pot-a-Doodle Do offers a remarkable range of family activities and adventure including ‘comfy camping’.
  • Location: Borewell Farm, Scremerston, Berwick-upon-Tweed.
  • Contact: John and Christine Whiteford.
  • Website: www.northumbrianwigwams.com

The Whitefords farm 650 acres at Scremerston, passed on to them by John’s father who came to Northumberland from Fife in 1959. They grow primarily wheat, but also other cereals, and they run a pedigree Aberdeen Angus herd. It is very much a viable farming entity and the decision to diversify – prompted by the onset of the new millennium – was driven by Christine’s desire to work from home and ‘make a worthwhile contribution’.

Their first project launched in May 2000 – an interactive arts centre, where all ages can indulge their artistic tendencies by decorating pots and ceramics or embellishing mirrors with mosaic tiles. They also opened a restaurant serving quality local food including the farm’s Aberdeen Angus beef.

In 2001 they added a shop and in 2002 they opened their lake to fishing. Further activities were developed through a quad bike operation and walking trails in 2003.

In 2004, they began to diversify into ‘comfy camping’ with wigwams, followed by four canvas tipis in 2006. Yurts completed the line-up in 2007. Showers, toilets and a communal kitchen are provided for guests.

Christine says, ‘Any frustrations we endured came from the planning authorities, however not because they rejected our bids, more that they were unsure in how to deal with our proposal. This resulted in some delays. Getting signs placed has been more of an issue. I am pleased to say that most government agencies could not have been more helpful, specifically the Environmental Health Agency and Business Link.’

Over the course of developments the Whitefords received an initial grant from RDPE towards converting the buildings, plus a redundant buildings grant towards conversion of the restaurant.

Most recently they have obtained a grant from Business Link to help build a porch to make the restaurant more heat efficient.

The Whitefords market their business via their website and email an existing database of contacts to keep them up to speed. They do little advertising but support local tourism agencies, and they distribute leaflets throughout the North East region using an agent. Another route to market is through Wigwam Holidays, who build wigwams and promote where to find them. A large percentage of business is now either repeat or referrals, which reflects well on the quality of the experience on offer.

Pot-a-Doodle Do is a profitable venture and accommodation is booked up for the summer. Day visitors cannot be predicted, however Christine points out, ‘Rainy days drive the families into our interactive arts centre, which complements our outdoor activities.’

The above case studies prompt further discussion of current trends and opportunities in farm tourism.

There is no doubt that, if not the biggest, certainly the most high-profile change in accommodation provision is that of ‘comfy camping’, to use Christine Whiteford’s phrase. Simple investigation via internet searches quickly highlights the spread of its popularity, whether accommodation comes in the form of a yurt – a Mongolian wooden frame covered in canvas or skins – wigwam, tipi, converted shepherd’s hut, or canvas ‘safari’ tent as you might find on a Featherdown Farm. All provide the ‘close to nature’ experience that is in high demand.

The prescribed formula and franchise of Featherdown is now available on 21 farms across England and Wales and is a good starting point for the farmer looking to diversify: everything is included as part of the package and bookings are made centrally.

By contrast, there is a marked change in priority with regard to more traditional farm accommodation such as B&B in the main farmhouse and self-catering in converted outbuildings or cottages. As indicated earlier in this report, since 1993 Farm Stay UK has lost over 100 B&B members but gained more than 250 self-caterers. The desire to offer the traditional B&B experience is at odds with busy lifestyles – not just of the consumer but also of the provider.

Andy Woodward, Chief Executive of Farm Stay UK, predicts that this trend will continue as many of those who originally diversified their farms retire and hand over to new generations. The trend will be exacerbated by the rising age of farm owners – the average age of hill farmers is now 58 (Prince’s Rural Action programme).

As Barry Davies from NFAN has already said: there are plenty of things to do on the farm as diversification has developed, but it appears that the teenager is the missing link in this process at the moment.

The younger visitor is catered for at no end of activity centres – internet searches reveal play barns, ball parks, maize mazes, animal petting and large animal experiences, haystacks, toy diggers, bumper cars and boats. There are childcare nurseries and plant nurseries for adults, organic farm experiences, zoos and tractor-trailer rides, and rare breed programmes for a variety of birds and animals.

A broader adult experience is also available through art classes and cooking schools, although these could equally take place in any rural establishment. Riding has always been a traditional activity and there is not much evidence that this is expanding, although the provision of stabling and grazing is something that Farm Stay members now have the wherewithal to promote. This has already been identified in over 50 properties offering such facilities.

This leaves the soft and extreme adventure sector. A strong niche, it is worth further discussion, particularly as it is likely to attract the youth market.

Two of the case studies outlined earlier offer quad bike trails and the activity is popular with all ages. In addition, 4-wheel drive tracks and trials are attracting more participants, but the nature of the equipment makes it ‘hobby’ led by vehicle enthusiasts. The paintball craze, which saw a huge increase in the early 1990s, has now settled into a more mature marketplace.

Clearly, operators need to be aware of changing – and potential new – fashions. Mountainboarding is a sport that is relatively young in the UK and is steadily gaining appeal, according to Nina Bubb of Bugsboarding at Maisemore, Gloucester (www.bugsboarding.co.uk).

Her husband and a friend began the venture six years ago, as a diversification on the family farm where they keep mainly beef cattle. Additionally they offer grass sledging and mountain biking. Mountainboarding – like snowboarding but on wheels – takes place over jumps and courses across the centre’s 10-acre site. The activity attracts many local youngsters, hen/stag parties, clubs, scout groups and schools. Nina predicts this type of adventure will continue to expand.

Adventure activities are also growing at Elton Farm, Newnham-on-Severn, Forest of Dean. Since 1989 Peter Radley has ‘done every type of diversification’, including a maize maze (the crop is used for cattle feed) and a junior assault course (www.eltonfarm-leisure.co.uk).

Over the last three years he has rented out circa 18 acres of land to Neil Griffin, who runs Redhillextreme mountainboarding and mountain biking. Neil says that biking in particular has taken off with customers aged 12 to mid-20s – that elusive teenage segment. He believes that rising interest in extreme pursuits generally is due to ‘the whole healthy bandwagon that everyone is jumping onto.’ The downside to his business is bad weather that can affect jumps and racetracks: July 2009 was so bad that he was closed for 50% of the time.

Finally, there is clear demand in the adventure sector for multiple-activity packages. Fred Phillips of Mountain Mayhem, Tybubach Farm, Herefordshire, offers around 20 different exciting sports, from orienteering and motorsports to shooting and mountain walking (www.mountainmayhem.com). Most visitors to the 60-acre site close to the Brecon Beacons come from London and the south, but also Scotland and Ireland. The biggest market is hen/stag parties, usually aged mid-20s and older, and Fred designs individual packages to suit them. During the week the main market is corporate and team building, for which there are also on-site conference facilities.

Fred began his diversification into adventure sports in 1998 and demand grew so fast that he had to make a choice between farming and his new enterprise. In 2001 when Foot and Mouth Disease struck, he took the opportunity to analyse his options. He decided to devote himself to Mountain Mayhem – an example of how a diversification can be so successful that it takes over from the agricultural base.

Few will disagree that the Great British countryside in all its glory is a superb product. It also currently attracts very particular media and public interest due to lifestyle choices and environmental concerns. Farm tourism is well placed to offer leisure opportunities in tune with consumer trends: holidays where health and fitness, ‘experiences’, locally sourced food, closeness to nature, adventure, education, sustainability and green credentials are key elements.

It is crucial that the entrepreneurs of the countryside, traditionally farmers and landlords, are allowed to capitalise on their opportunities and create a wide, varied programme for people to enjoy. These projects must meet and exceed the expectations of an increasingly demanding public, where value for money is paramount – particularly during the present economic downturn.

Examples highlighted in this article illustrate the imaginativeness of farm diversifications: the conversion of derelict buildings to stunning accommodation; attractions ranging from animal encounters to extreme sports. The farm shop and local producers of every kind of foods and craft ensure people can take home their little piece of the country.

Each type of diversification has a place if well planned and well executed. Farmers need to be alert to changing consumer tastes, such as the move away from traditional B&B accommodation to self-catering and even yurts, tipis and safari tents that offer the ultimate ‘outdoor’ experience.

Fundamentally, farmers have become ‘asset managers’ of land. They must weigh the benefits and rewards from traditional farming against potential diversifications, and not just in tourism. It is essential that local, regional and national authorities support projects: to deliver sustainable ventures, jobs and money into the rural economy, as well as educate visitors about the importance of the countryside, both for the provision of food and relaxation.

The longevity of rural communities has a basic reliance on diversification: visitors to farm attractions and accommodation also bring money into local villages, shops, eateries, pubs and local services. This relationship is not always grasped by local planning authorities or those resistant to change (although the case studies indicated largely positive dealings with authorities). It is crucial not only that farmers make the most of their opportunities, but that the true value of farm diversification is recognised, both for tourism and the wider economy.

  1. VisitBritain UK Tourism Survey 2008, www.tourismtrade.org.uk/marketintelligenceresearch.
  2. VisitBritain 2007 Visitor Attractions Survey, www.tourismtrade.org.uk/marketintelligenceresearch.
  3. Defra 2007/8 Farm Business Survey, http://statistics.defra.gov.uk.

Andy Woodward is Chief Executive of Farm Stay UK. He began his tourism industry career in tour operating and later moved into tourism marketing. He has worked for a number of well-known tour operators including Jetsave, Intasun and Globespan. He was Product Director of Hamilton Travel before being recruited by a tourism marketing agency. He later joined McCluskey International as Director of Travel and Tourism, responsible for the UK accounts of California, Arizona, Ontario and many others. A short contract at Shakespeare Country enabled him to rapidly investigate and develop his interest in domestic tourism before he joined Farm Stay UK.